Maureen Duffy: Postcards from the International Authors Forum


Postcard from Israel: Literature as a bridge between cultures & the power of diversity

Below is an edited version of the presentation that Vered Cohen–Barzilay gave at Postcards in 2017.

Vered Cohen–Barzilay is the Founder-Director of Novel Rights, a social enterprise which recognizes the power of literature to drive change and motivate people to take action. Novel Rights is dedicated to encouraging the literary community to share in human rights literature, expand their understanding and knowledge on human rights topics and violations, inviting them to take action.

Alongside producing events such as this, they operate an e-publishing house.

A group of artists in Berlin, 2017, photo provided by Vered Cohen Barzilay.
A group of artists in Berlin, 2017, photo provided by Vered Cohen Barzilay.

Who am I?

My name is Vered Cohen Barzilay and before I introduce myself, I wish to ask you to look at me and tell me what you think you know about me? Who am I?

You are all probably aware that the answers you just gave are based on stereotypes - a combination of prejudice, cultural, social and geographical knowledge. The information that each and every one of you collected on me helped you to label me and translate it to the way you feel about me…

Through feelings of love, hate, like or dislike.

Stereotypes may vary between cultures and countries. Some of you sitting here may have made assumptions about my thoughts, actions and views about Palestinians, just because I come from Israel. My geographical origin immediately connects me to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. I may have been already labeled "pro-Israeli or "pro-Palestinian" even before I opened my mouth to communicate my views.

In my country, Israel, I'll also be judged by the colour of my skin. While people can hide or change their religion, citizenship, geographical location and beliefs, they cannot hide the colour of their skin. In Israel, my color indicates that I have "Mizrachi" roots. Mizrachi are Jews descended from local Jewish communities of the Middle East from biblical times to the modern era. They include descendants of Babylonian Jews and mountain Jews from modern Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Azerbaijan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.

Mizrachi Identity

To simplify, half of my roots are in Iraq. My father was born in Basra-Iraq, his mother's language was Arabic or Arabic Iraqi to be more precise.

In Israel, for many years, Mizrachi people suffered discrimination. Their warm connections to Arabs in the Arab countries is reflected not only in the language they spoke but in folklore, arts, food etc.'. All of that was considered inferior in the early years of the new country and in many ways it still is.

For Mizrachi people, the path to success was more difficult (in some periods almost impossible). Their traditions, their music and literature, if it even existed, existed mostly underground and was considered to be uncivilized and unsophisticated. Mizrachi people and their rich history were omitted from Israel’s history books, from textbooks, and were for the most part non-existent even in pop-culture, in movies and television. If a Mizrachi person was portrayed, it was as a gross stereotype – as someone ignorant and uncivilized. Entire generations were erased by a decision to make Mizrachi people forget their history and achievements.

As a result, our Mizrachi roots led us to feel shame. As a child, I refused to speak or study Arabic, I refused to be associated in any way with my Mizrachi origins. This behavior is very common among second generation Mizrachi people in Israel. Many people changed their names or surnames so that they would not be recognized as a Mizrachi person or marked as belonging to the Mizrachi culture.

Finding inspiration

But the colour of my skin remained in my consciousness. I could disassociate myself from my Mizrachi origins culturally and intellectually. But I couldn’t escape my skin colour. And so with regard to skin colour, I searched for others with brown skin similar to myself -  my father, my grandfather and grandmother. I was attracted to black writers to guide me and help me understand the issue of skin color in the world.

In one of her interviews, the Nobel Prize winner, Toni Morrison said that the reason she wrote her phenomenal book Beloved was because she never read a novel with young black women as a heroine.  “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it,” she said. I haven’t read a Hebrew book with a young Mizrachi woman as a heroine, until very recently.

Contemporary Mizrachi literature

Iris Eliya Cohen is a Mizrachi novelist and poet. Iris, together with other female poets and writers such as Haviva Pedaya, Amira Hess, Tzionit Fatal Kupervasser, Adi Kissar and male writers such as Sami Michael, Eli Amir, Almog Behar, Shlomy Hatuka, Roy Hassan and more, led a breakthrough in Israeli literature and poetry. For the first time, they all told stories of first and second generation Mizrachi Jews; they expressed the tragedy of previous generations, the pain, the memories of their families in their early homes, the violent exile from Arab countries and the rich heritage they were all forced to forget. They also touched upon the issue of color.

In her first novel, Maktub, Iris describes for the first time a forbidden love affair between a Mizrachi woman and a Palestinian gardener. This love affair was a metaphor of a process that started less than a decade ago among second generation Mizrachi descendants. Slowly they opened the wounds of their families, returned to their original names and surnames, the oriental food, and the Jewish Arabic language. From a population of 126,000 Jews that lived in Iraq until 60 years ago, only four still live in the country. The Jewish community that had a major effect on Iraq’s successful economy and culture disappeared forever.

Literature as a bridge between cultures

Thanks to Facebook, Israelis and Arabs were able to re-communicate. Even in countries such as Iran, Iraq and Syria that are considered enemies by both sides, Jews and Arabs can now share childhood memories or re-discover the roots of the families that got lost in the history books and in the current tragic political situation in the Middle East. More than 50,000 people are members of the largest Facebook group that connects Jewish Iraqis and Arab Iraqi citizens.

Literature allows us to get to know people that we can't physically meet, even from banned cultures and enemy countries. It helps us get to know them better, live with them, feel their pain and success - love them, understand them and feel high levels of empathy toward them.

In her famous TED lecture, “The Danger of a Single Story,” the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, warned about the one point of view that we often find in our modern world. Unfortunately we also find this in the news and in literature.

We are on the brink of a third world war. Every day we experience expressions of hate and ignorance. The levels of violence increase in almost every place on earth. As a result, in many places in the world people are demanding to exile foreigners because they dislike minorities and prefer the single national story point of view.

The question is why are people so threatened by minorities? Is it worth the next world war? Ironically, people make political choices in order to gain security and serenity for their home and land. People are afraid because there are leaders that blame minorities and they can't imagine a peaceful world rich in diverse cultures. But these leaders, parties and their actions, will eventually lead us all to a horrible war.

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying “imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited while imagination embraces the entire world".

Change always starts with Imagination

If we can imagine – we can act and change. If we will be able to look at each other not as a single story but as stories told from multiple angles, we will appreciate each other better. We will stop being afraid. During the second world war leaders blamed minorities. In fact, they suggested and tried to mark them all, and to nurture the single-story point of view – to make themselves great again. 70 million people died as a result. When the war ended humanity was almost extinct. Morality was at its lowest point.

Four years ago, a group of Mizrachi-Israeli and Iraqi authors and professors, met together for the first time in 60 years in order to learn about each other. All members of each side of the group were taught to hate each other. They grew up with stories about the Jewish-Israeli devil and of the Muslim-Arab devil. These types of education put everyone at risk. And while we met and had a wonderful experience, I can’t disclose the identity of those we met or show you a movie about our meaningful experiences out of fear for our safety and our lives.

Hate nurtures destruction and wars. It erodes every good seed of morality and humanity. The more we learned about each other the less we felt intimidated by each other.

This is the only way to beat terror! The only way to break the circle of hate, fear and violence!

Literature can create a similar effect on a massive group of people. It can beat ignorance, racism, fascism, islamophobia and Nazism.

But where can we find literature that tells a different story? A story from a multiplicity of angles? A story that humanizes minorities and refugees so that people feel less intimidated so that they can imagine a culturally rich world that does not sanctify geographical borders or physical walls more than the human race.

These books are rarely published; they are hardly distributed, at least not as widely as they should be.

Only last year could Israeli readers read books by Iraqi writers describing the situation in Iraq. Only this year, could Iraqi readers, be exposed to the story of Iraqi Jews, written by Israeli Mizrach writers for the first time.

Our world is heading toward a new era, toward a revolution that will change education, our employment system and basically everything that we know today. These changes are inevitable but wars – are not.

The future is in our hands

We all must join together and bravely say: never again! The future is in our hands, it is in our pens, only together can we write a different chapter for our world.

As a resident of the Middle East and a proud Israeli Mizrach person, I stand in front of you and call all writers to join the International Authors Forum. The forum's important work helps writers secure their rights, protect their creations and make sure that literature will not disappear with the new changes in the world.

I also call on you to support a Middle East writer's forum.  Our region has experienced too many conflicts and wars. Too many innocent people have lost their lives. It is time that we present a different story about friendships, solidarity, peace and humanity.

Thank you for listening.